At NETmundial, One Word Has Many Meanings

They say that the Inuit language can be daunting to outsiders, because they have dozens of different words for “snow”. In the language of Internet governance we have the opposite challenge, where one word can have dozens of different – often contradictory – meanings.

This dynamic was on full display during the first day of the NETmundial in Sao Paolo, Brazil yesterday. Words like “governance” and “multistakeholder” were repeated by the widest range of stakeholders, from governments to civil society to technologists to business.  But their meanings diverged widely.

Many government speakers, in particular, want to enhance government oversight over key Internet functions. While everyone agreed that governments must be part of the multistakeholder system, we appear no closer to consensus on how big a role they should play.

Indeed, even the term “Internet governance” elicited a wide range of definitions and interpretations, from those seeking to make the current system more inclusive to those, like Russia’s Nikolai Nikforov who called for a “new model of Internet governance meeting the interests of a majority of states.”

Of course in any meeting with as broad charter as NETmundial, divergent opinions are an expected and valuable part of the process, but it is mildly concerning that participants don’t even appear to be clear on what problem we’re attempting to solve.  For example, many speakers claimed that Snowden’s revelations are the reason NETmundial was created, so they demanded a document that would forbid mass surveillance.

On the bright side, we are still very early in this process.  As long as we all acknowledge that consensus on operational details will take more time than consensus on high-level principles, there is still plenty of time to develop working definitions of what we are seeking to improve, and who should be involved in that improvement.

As ICANN President Fadi Chehade and NTIA’s Larry Strickling said in their testimony before Congress this month, there is no rush to reach consensus. Even the ostensible deadline created by the September 2015 expiration of the current IANA contract is easily extended to allow more time for the bottom-up, multistakeholder process to reach a true consensus on the transition.

There has already been much debate over the outcome document  delegates are working to finalize at NETmundial. While those discussions are valuable, they are only a small step in a process that will continue in other places in the months and years ahead.

With any luck, after this week, we will move a little closer to speaking the same language.

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